Friday, August 15, 2008

A plea for Cheesecake.

Before quiche and the likes of marbled-mocha-vanilla-strawberry-topped-hazelnut-crusted cheesecake, there was simply cheesecake. Cheesecake has a very long history indeed. Not all cheesecakes have cheese in them (we will perhaps have a nice Chester Cheesecake soon.) They have never been ‘cakes’ either, in the modern sense of the word, but they have mostly been thinnish and flattish like a ‘cakes’ of soap, or mud. Neither have they always been ‘tarts’ – there was a crustless variety called a pudding-pie (although the Kentish Pudding-Pie of relatively recent history does have a crust.) It was confusing enough before the French imposed quiche on us and snobby English-speaking folk adopted it.

Cheesecakes were raised to an art form due to the inventiveness of European cooks trying to get around the many meatless days decreed by the Church. They became sweeter as sugar became cheaper, as the sixteenth century progressed. The ‘savoury’ version appears to have become quiche early in the twentieth century (the 1920’s, if the OED is correct.)

I accept and rejoice in the fact that the English language is a constantly adapting and evolving, but I do not understand why we take up a word when we have a perfectly good one already. English does not have words that will transmit exactly the same sense as the Spanish macho or the French ennui, and the French now have le weekend, whereas once upon a time they had only Saturday and Sunday – so these seem like reasonable trades. At one time, the British at table had a bill of fare, then the Victorians changed it to menu, which is silly, because menu means little, and most Victorian bills of fare were not. The famous historic restaurant of Simpson’s on the Strand has always refused to convert its Bill of Fare into a Menu. May I make a plea for the return of the Savoury Cheesecake? Just because I feel a little ornery today – and I don’t believe we have an English-English equivalent of the (I think) American-English ornery, which is not at all the same as feeling ordinary, which is the old name for a pub, anyway.

Tart de Bry.
Take a Crust ynche depe in a trape. take zolkes of Ayren rawe & chese ruayn. & medle it & þe zolkes togyder. and do þerto powdour gyngur. sugur. safroun. and salt. do it in a trape, bake it and serue it forth.
From: The Master-Cooks of King Richard II, The Forme of Cury, c.1390

Note: ‘Bry’ appears to refer to the region where this cheese tart originated: ‘ruayn’ was apparently a soft autumn cheese. The amount of sugar is not specified in this recipe, but sugar was very expensive at the time and was used more like a spice. This was probably close what we would call a ‘savoury’ type of cheesecake today (although no such distinction between sweet and savoury dishes was made back then.)

Cheesecakes, Savoury.
Mix thoroughly a pint of well-drained curd, three ounces of butter, and the yolks of six and the whites of two eggs well-beaten. Rub them through a coarse sieve, and add a quarter of a pound of grated Parmesan, and a little salt and pepper. If preferred, the curd may be omitted, and a little cream substituted. Of course, in this case, there would be no necessity to rub the mixture through a sieve. Line some tartlet tins with good crust, fill them three-parts with the mixture, and bake in a good oven for about twenty minutes.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, c1870’s.

Quotation for the Day …

Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but afer all, the Scotchman would shake his head, and say, "Where's your haggis?" and the Fijan would sigh and say, "Where's your missionary?"
Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

We being so dessert focused, I never realized that cheesecake evolved as a meatless meal. I think you mave given me permission to now consume cheesecake as my main entree.

Lili said...

I don't know if it's exactly the same as ornery, but you do have the delightful "shirty." Both suggest high levels of irritability. Still, ornery is a fine word and you're welcome to coopt it.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello t.w and lili - sorry to be a bit late in answering this, I got a bit distracted by the approaching deadline.
t.w. I think that is a fine suggestion. Get all your protein and calcium too.
lili - I think shirty is better than ornery, so I will chose it; I do strive for bemused - but I think OI do verge on shirty, at times,

Lori said...

I must tell you that I love cheesecake and now your blog as well. I happened to do some random searching for Vintage Christmas this evening and now here I am, an hour into be completly emerged! Thank you.